Friday, April 3, 2009

A summit that shows the new balance of power

A summit that shows the new balance of power

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New alliances are forming, old ideologies are dying, the world is now a different place. Mary Dejevsky looks at the lessons of the G20

Multilateralism and its institutions are back

Not only did the leaders of the 20 richest countries in the world all find time in their diaries to come to London, but most of the action they announced yesterday is to be channelled through existing international organisations – chiefly the IMF and the World Bank. If everyone honours their pledges, institutions that seemed on the verge of redundancy only a few years ago will soon find themselves awash with new cash and new responsibilities. They will be under pressure to restructure themselves in line with their new remit. The Bush-era contempt for the UN and other multilateral forums is a thing of the past. At least for now.

The ultra free market is no longer dogma

In saying as baldly as he did yesterday that "the Washington consensus is over", Gordon Brown effectively rejected, on behalf of the whole G20, the ultra free-market dogmatism that the US and Britain liked to preach after the collapse of communism. The IMF and World Bank had already started to distance themselves from the idea that countries seeking their assistance should be encouraged, or required, to adopt free-market mechanisms on the US model. But the outcome of the London summit is the clearest signal yet that the US model inherited from the Clinton and Bush years will be regarded as one way of doing things, alongside others. In the new world order, economic transparency, accountability and effectiveness will also be considered virtues.

The US is becoming just another big country

We do not know exactly what went on inside the ExCel centre. Beyond it, though, all eyes were on Barack and Michelle Obama. Separately and together, they were the couple the crowds turned out to see. President Obama was the national leader most in demand for bilateral meetings, starting with breakfast, a round of talks and a long-ish press conference at No 10. From what we know about preparations for the summit, and from the communiqué, however, the voice of the United States was one, albeit an influential one, among others.

In London, Mr Obama's celebrity status seems not to have translated into diplomatic weight. This may reflect the "listening" stance he has adopted in contrast to his predecessor's air of certainty. It could reflect the US economic plight or, more prosaically, it could simply be because he has yet to appoint many Treasury and State Department officials. But it could also be a sign of new times. By inclination or by necessity, the post-Bush United States seems to see its place in the world a little differerently: less American exceptionalism, more consensus-seeking. In the G20, the presence of China, India and Indonesia, among others, gives a foretaste of a future world order.

The special relationship is a thing of the past

Mr Brown was the first European leader to meet Mr Obama in Washington after his election and the first European leader to receive the new President on his home territory. The small irritations that came to light after the Washington trip – the lack of a full-dress press conference, the brevity of the meeting, the presents – were all thoroughly laid to rest in London. What was also clear, though, ws that Mr Obama exercises his bonhomie without special favours. Britain must get used to the idea of being one friend among many others.

The US and Russia pushed the reset button

Relations between the US and Russia, good or bad, are not going to dominate the new world order. But the poor state of relations in the later Bush years was a liability to both, hindering US diplomacy in several parts of the world and distracting Russian leaders from urgent business at home.

Mr Obama and Mr Medvedev, both lawyers incidentally and of a similar age, struck a new tone at their London meeting. A July summit lies ahead, along with that old stalwart of Soviet days, talks on nuclear arms control, with a view to replacing or extending the START treaty which expires at the end of the year. The US anti-missile installations planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic appear to have been put on hold, as have Russia's counter-deployments in Kaliningrad. The broad smiles on both men's faces at the end of their meeting suggested a cordiality, on a personal level at least, not seen in US-Russian relations for 20 years. It may be too soon to count on a joint approach to Iran, Afghanistan or Iraq. But warmer relations could prevent the sort of stand-off in Georgia last August that came dangerously close to war.

'Old Europe' made its voice heard

The European Union is often criticised, including by its friends, for not exercising international clout commensurate with its political and economic strength. And the split between "old" and "new" Europe on a plethora of issues, including the US, Russia, economic models and Iraq, was debilitating.

With many "new" Europeans suffering disproportionately from the economic crisis and a new mood radiating from Washington, however, the divisions have narrowed. When the French and German leaders jointly set out their demands for tougher financial regulation on Wednesday, they could claim to be speaking with a European voice. Some even likened them to an opposition. Even if their demarche was mainly directed to their home audiences, it put Europe on the diplomatic map – where it is very likely to stay.

China made its shy debut as a rising power

Right up there with Barack Obama as the international leader most indemand for bilateral meetings was Hu Jintao, President of China. Even so, he kept a low profile; fitting in, saying nothing out of turn. There was an ambivalence that suggested uncertainty about how to handle growing power. Before the summit, China had backed a proposal for a new international reserve currency – an idea whose time may yet come. It had also fended off another US demand for it to reduce the trade imbalance by revaluing its currency. In London, China's rise was treated by everyone else as inevitable, if not already a fact. President Hu still seemed desperate not to scare the horses.

Britain has a future as host to the world

A parochial post script. It was all going to be an ill-temperered disaster; draft communiqués, M. Sarkozy complained, were crossing his desk by the hour. In the event, there were smiles, the sun shone, the roads were clear, there were drinks with the Queen, dinner at Downing Street – and an agreement that satisfied even the French. So, not a disaster at all.

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